Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Feminism: An attack on the human body

    I had the opportunity to visit with Harvey Mansfield after the Harvard conference on feminism. I made the comment to him, "in some ways, feminism is a revolt against the human body." He replied, "feminism is a revolt against nature." We didn't talk any more about it, as it seemed that we intuited what the other was saying. But as I thought about it some more, I have become convinced that the revolt against the body is a key part of feminism, and perhaps of modernity more generally. Here is what I mean.

    The various forms of feminism have tried to teach us that our "real self" exists somehow independently of our gender. According to some feminists, gender differentiation is a cosmic injustice, that demands correction or compensation. More modest forms of feminism hold that gender differentiation is insignificant, or irrelevant to anything important. And the social changes that feminism has inspired have attempted to minimize anything distinctively feminine. The proper goal for a woman, especially an intelligent, promising woman, is to behave exactly as a man her age would. She should get an education, pursue a career, and work long hours to establish her financial independence.

She should remain oblivious to the fact that child-bearing will have a very different impact on her than on men her age. Her opportunity for child-bearing is limited in a way that a man's fertility is not. Giving birth will affect her body: every cell in her body responds to the fact of her pregnancy. Motherhood affects her differently than fatherhood affects a man. She should follow the same life-plan as men, and she should demand that her husband share identically in all the chores necessary to maintain a household. She is entitled to demand equality as her right, even though behaving identically will be unnatural for both her and her husband.

But as I say, feminists don't view gender differentiation as a biological reality to which sensible people must adapt. Sex differences are a cosmic injustice. No demand for social change is too extreme in the service of wiping out these differences. This is great if you happen to be a radical, intent on justifying revolutionary social changes. But if you are a normal person, living in a normal body, this ideology is more than a nuisance. We have painted ourselves into a corner. Under feminist tutelage, we have insisted that women change their fertility in order to accommodate the labor market. We have insisted on the right to raise our children alone, and to spend larger and larger portions of our lives alone.

  I was thinking of all this, not just because of my conversation with Harvey Mansfield about feminism. I noticed at my mother's (Catholic) funeral: we take the body seriously. We treat the body, even the dead body, with respect. Catholics are not supposed to cremate the body, but to bury it as intact as possible. We believe that we will get our bodies back in glorified and perfected form, at the Last Judgment, and live in those bodies forever. The priest incenses the casket, to show reverence for the body, which was once a Temple of the Holy Spirit.

    I also was thinking about this because I have been rereading the new translation of The Theology of the Body, by the late John Paul II. The translator, Michael Waldstein observes in his introductory essay that The Theology of the Body is John Paul's response to Cartesian dualism. The body is not only relevant, but deeply significant. In effect, JPII asks, "God created us male and female. What is God trying to say to us?" the whole book is an answer to that question.


Boonton said...

I would say this post would be clearer and more relevant if you actually defined who you were talking about. Who are the leading feminists who hold this view you are disputing? Show us.

A while ago I remember conservative critics of feminism were making a big deal about 'gender feminists' vs 'equity feminists'. Equity feminists wanted classical equal rights (the vote, equal pay for equal work etc.) and were painted in a good light while 'gender feminists' wanted 'special treatment' based on gender (like affirmative action).

This argument, though, seems to be of two minds. It seems that conservatives sometimes want feminists to be 'equity ones' but then want to turn around and bash them for playing down differences between the sexes!

Jennifer Roback Morse said...

I don't try to keep track of teh differences among feminists: life is too short. My argument is with the people who do not accept any evidence of biological differences between men and women, or who dismiss all differences as being culturally constructed. I don't know what to call these people, but I keep encountering them. If the shoe fits, wear it.

Boonton said...

If you keep encountering them then by all means show us who you are talking about.

You don't have to track all the differences in feminism but if you're going to be a critic of feminism then maybe you should be careful of the inconsistencies in anti-feminist thought.

On the one hand feminists are bashed for doing exactly what you say they don't. Namely asserting the female gender is 'different' and therefore deserves certain allowances not available to the male gender. On the other hand, if they take a strict 'no difference' POV they are bashed for ignoring clear biological differences.

For the record, I think very few feminists are unaware that women uniquely bear the burden of the creation of children & that motherhood is something deeply important to women. The problem that was common until all too recently was that these things were the only things that were allowed to be important to women.

I remember when I was a kid seeing a movie that was set in the 70's where a woman went to the bank to take the money out of her account that she had been carefully saving only to find her abusive husband had already taken it. Why? Well he was the husband, of course he had access to her accounts (but not the other way around).